2024 NRL Jerseys
55 days ago | LeagueUnlimited Media
Rob Crosby brings us the next instalment in the 2023 NRL club review series, looking at the resurgent Newcastle Knights.
Restoring pride in a record-breaking year
There were few scenes more stirring in 2023 than the sea of red and blue on hand to witness the Newcastle Knights prevail in an epic elimination final played before a sold-out home crowd.
On a Sunday afternoon, 17 years in the making, the Knights emerged victorious at the end of an absorbing 90-minute contest that wrote Adam O'Brien's side into the history books with a club record tenth consecutive victory.
In a year that promised little and at times threatened to deliver even less, it was a high watermark that not only evoked memories of past glories but gave hope that new ones lay ahead.
Beginning the year without expectation following a disastrous 2022 campaign, on-field victories initially proved hard to come by for coach O'Brien with the side managing five wins and a draw from their first 15 matches to languish in the bottom four at the beginning of July.
Coming into the Round 18 contest against the Bulldogs in the knowledge a loss would almost certainly see O'Brien dismissed, the Knights responded with a club record 66-0 victory that sparked a fire that burned brightly over the next ten weeks as the side, led with distinction by Kalyn Ponga, surged up the ladder to secure a home final for the first time since 2006.
Reaching the finals for the third time in four seasons under O'Brien, the Knights recorded their first finals victory in a decade to defeat the Raiders with Ponga landing a decisive penalty goal in extra time.
Having come from 14th a season earlier to finish the home-and-away campaign in fifth position, the ecstasy of the home final turned to disappointment as the fire that burned so brightly finally went out at the hands of the Warriors the following week.
It was an ending that showed how far the Knights had come - yet how far they still have to go.
After breaking multiple records on the field in 2023, the Knights will have their sights set on ending one that will have stood for 23 years by the time next season kicks off.
The success Kalyn Ponga achieved in 2023 was all the more remarkable given how close the Newcastle captain came to being forced out of the game.
Suffering a sickening concussion barely two minutes into the side's Round 2 visit to Leichhardt Oval, initial fears of time being prematurely called on his career were quelled following treatment overseas that saw him return to the field six weeks later.
Struggling for consistency as a five-eighth upon his return, an underwhelming performance on the eve of State of Origin selection saw the incumbent Queensland fullback, who claimed Man of the Match honours in the epic 2022 decider, elect to make himself unavailable for the entire series in order to put his club first.
The decision, coinciding with a move back to fullback, changed the course of Newcastle's fortunes with Ponga leading the Knights from 14th at the start of July to fifth by the end of the regular season.
Finishing the year with 21 try assists, 96 tackle breaks, 19 linebreaks and nine tries, Ponga's form culminated in a stunning Dally M result which saw him pip favourite Shaun Johnson by one point to become the third Newcastle player to receive the most prestigious individual honour in the game.
The Knights frequently played with ascendancy as a result of the remarkable work of Dominic Young and Greg Marzhew with the ball in hand.
Combining to form arguably the best wing pairing in the league, the duo used their attributes as part of a powerhouse yardage strategy that allowed the side to get out of their own end and provide space for the likes of Ponga, Tyson Gamble, Jackson Hastings and Phoenix Crossland to operate on the front foot.
Announcing his decision to depart the club at season's end to join the Roosters, Young silenced his detractors to finish the year as the league's leading try-scorer - setting a club record in the process - while producing remarkable results for linebreaks (32), tackle breaks (120), post-contact metres (997) and running metres (3,807).
Signing with Newcastle as part of a swap deal that saw hooker Chris Randall head to the Gold Coast, Marzhew enjoyed a career best year that yielded a try per game on average (22) and the most tackle breaks in the league (177), along with phenomenal statistics for running metres (4,415), post-contact metres (1,440) and linebreaks (27).
While the Knights finished with their highest regular season standing since the retirement of Andrew Johns, the side struggled to deliver a killer blow in matches against the premier teams of the league.
Winning five out of 11 matches against all top eight sides - and two out of six against top four adversaries - the Knights were rarely embarrassed against the likes of Penrith, Brisbane and New Zealand during the regular season, but lacked the steel needed to make a statement in September.
After escaping with an extra time victory against the Raiders off the back of cacophonous home ground support, the Knights were found wanting as a finals-hardened team with a catastrophic opening against the Warriors that saw the side lose the game not from conceding three early tries but in chasing the scoreboard under duress and coming up with self-inflicted errors.
|1||Mar 3rd||Fri 8:00pm||A||Warriors||L||12||-||20||Wellington||16,676||13th|
|2||Mar 12th||Sun 4:05pm||A||Wests Tigers||W||14||-||12||Leichhardt||13,214||11th|
|3||Mar 17th||Fri 6:00pm||H||Dolphins||L||20||-||36||McD Jones||20,093||15th|
|4||Mar 26th||Sun 4:05pm||H||Canberra||W||24||-||14||McD Jones||15,106||12th|
|5||Apr 1st||Sat 3:00pm||A||Manly||D||32||-||32||Mudgee||9,024||12th|
|6||Apr 9th||Sun 6:15pm||H||Warriors||W||34||-||24||McD Jones||18,007||9th|
|7||Apr 15th||Sat 5:30pm||H||Penrith||L||15||-||16||McD Jones||26,084||12th|
|8||Apr 22nd||Sat 7:35pm||A||North QLD||L||16||-||18||QLD C B||17,970||12th|
|9||Apr 28th||Fri 6:00pm||A||Parramatta||L||12||-||43||CommBank||15,875||12th|
|11||May 14th||Sun 2:00pm||H||Gold Coast||W||46||-||26||McD Jones||13,064||11th|
|12||May 20th||Sat 3:00pm||A||Cronulla||L||6||-||26||C.ex Coffs||10,156||13th|
|13||May 28th||Sun 4:05pm||H||Manly||W||28||-||18||McD Jones||20,661||9th|
|15||Jun 10th||Sat 5:30pm||A||Brisbane||L||20||-||24||Suncorp||35,814||14th|
|16||Jun 17th||Sat 3:00pm||H||Sydney||L||16||-||18||McD Jones||21,966||14th|
|17||Jun 24th||Sat 5:30pm||A||Penrith||L||12||-||20||Bluebet||18,589||14th|
|18||Jul 2nd||Sun 2:00pm||A||Canterbury||W||66||-||0||Accor||11,004||13th|
|20||Jul 14th||Fri 8:00pm||H||Wests Tigers||W||34||-||18||McD Jones||18,470||11th|
|21||Jul 22nd||Sat 5:30pm||H||Melbourne||W||26||-||18||McD Jones||20,392||10th|
|22||Jul 29th||Sat 3:00pm||A||Canberra||W||28||-||6||GIO||15,487||9th|
|23||Aug 5th||Sat 3:30pm||A||Dolphins||W||30||-||28||Perth||45,814||8th|
|24||Aug 13th||Sun 4:05pm||H||Canterbury||W||42||-||6||McD Jones||23,464||7th|
|25||Aug 20th||Sun 2:05pm||H||Souths||W||29||-||10||McD Jones||29,018||7th|
|26||Aug 27th||Sun 4:05pm||H||Cronulla||W||32||-||6||McD Jones||29,423||5th|
|27||Sep 2nd||Sat 7:35pm||A||St Geo Illa||W||32||-||12||Netstrata||10,137||5th|
|EF||Sep 10th||Sun 4:05pm||H||Canberra||W||30||-||28||McD Jones||29,548||-|
|SF||Sep 16th||Sat 6:05pm||A||Warriors||L||10||-||40||Go Media||26,083||-|
Adam O'Brien produced an inspired move that changed the trajectory of the Knights campaign when he shifted a player with unrealised potential to a key spine position during the first half of the season.
That player was Phoenix Crossland.
Mostly known as an interchange utility since coming into first grade four years ago, the former junior representative halfback flourished as a hooker after Jayden Brailey sustained a season-ending knee injury on Easter Sunday.
Growing in confidence following an extended run in the starting side, Crossland saved one of his finest performances for when it mattered most with 60 tackles during an unbroken 90-minute effort in the elimination final win over the Raiders.
Debuting four players in first grade throughout the year, including three off the bench for their first home match against the Dolphins, the pick of the new faces was outside-back turned second-rower Dylan Lucas.
Making the most of seven appearances in the top grade to earn a new deal and Rookie of the Year honours at the Club's presentation night, Lucas will be aiming to fill the void created by Lachlan Fitzgibbon's departure with a strong off-season.
Versatile forward Thomas Cant and playmaker Ryan Rivett both appeared once early in the year, while Riley Jones got his chance in the final round of the regular season at hooker.
30 players, average age 26.32yrs
Coach: Adam O'Brien
Captains: Kalyn Ponga (20), Jayden Brailey (3), Tyson Frizell (2), Dane Gagai (1), Jackson Hastings (1), Jacob Saifiti (1)
Biggest home crowd: 29,423 (vs. Cronulla in round 26)
Average home crowd: 21,312
Top pointscorer: Kalyn Ponga (128)
Top tryscorer: Dominic Young (27)
Set to benefit from a largely consistent playing roster and a rejuvenated supporter base salivating at the prospect of continued success, the biggest challenge facing the Knights will be remaining consistently strong for the duration of the season.
The departure of Dominic Young will leave a major void in the yardage strategy that served the side so well, while striking the right balance to get the best out of Jayden Brailey and Phoenix Crossland could be the making or breaking of the side's campaign.
New recruits include English young guns Kai Pearce-Paul and Will Pryce, edge forward Jed Cartwright, outside back Thomas Jenkins and halfback Jack Cogger who returns to the club as a premiership winner.
The Knights played a brilliant brand of football without expectations for half a season - whether they can be as effective under pressure for the duration of 2024 remains to be seen.
based on current signings at time of writing
1. Kalyn Ponga (C)
2. Enari Tuala
3. Dane Gagai
4. Bradman Best
5. Greg Marzhew
6. Tyson Gamble
7. Jackson Hastings
8. Jacob Saifiti
9. Jayden Brailey
10. Leo Thompson
11. Tyson Frizell
12. Dylan Lucas
13. Adam Elliott
14. Phoenix Crossland
15. Daniel Saifiti
16. Jack Hetherington
17. Kai Pearce-Paul